Museum Director Musings: Safe-ly Behind the Scenes

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This weekend, we are offering another round of our very popular “Behind the Scenes” tour.  With this experience, Homestead docents take visitors to areas of the museum not generally accessible to the public.

These areas include the basement and second floor of the Workman House; the site of the home’s original water well, which was originally outside, but was later incorporated into a room built over it; the basement of La Casa Nueva; the adjacent detached Tepee, next to La Casa Nueva, which served as Walter Temple’s home office, or if you like “man cave”; and more.

One of the highlights of our “Behind the Scenes” special tours is seeing this remarkable circa 1890s-1900s bank vault in the basement of La Casa Nueva.  The vault was moved to the home in 1925 by Walter Temple when he learned that the Temple Block, home of his father and grandfather’s Temple and Workman bank, where the vault was located, was being torn down for the construction of Los Angeles City Hall.

One of the more notable stops on the tour is in the La Casa Nueva basement where a 19th century bank vault is the doorway to a cedar closet-lined room.  The story of the vault is an interesting one.

In 1925, as Walter Temple was busily in the midst of working on the construction of his Spanish Colonial Revival mansion, he became aware that the building of Los Angeles City Hall was going to mean the destruction of a three-story office structure, erected by his father, F.P.F. Temple, over a half century before in 1871.

The cedar cabinets inside were rebuilt in the late 1970s restoration of the Homestead, but cabinets like it were used by the Temple family when they built the closet and installed the vault door as its entry back in the late 1920s.

The anchor tenant of this last of several buildings that comprised what was known as the Temple Block was the bank, called Temple and Workman.  This institution, one of only two commercial banks in town in the first half of the 1870s, failed in 1876 due to a collapsed economy and mismanagement.

The bank was then used as the headquarters for the assignees of the bank to conduct the business of securing funds owed to the failed bank and then paying out the proceeds to creditors.   The vault and a safe located inside it were used to keep records and funds for that assignment process.

It is hard to imagine anything this artistic and beautiful being done on something as utilitarian as a bank vault today!  The restoration of the vault door was conducted in the late 1970s by restorer Dorothy Nersesian.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Savings Bank, which did not conduct commercial business, took over the space previously occupied by Temple and Workman and remained there for years.  By the 1920s, however, the Savings Bank had long moved on and it is unknown what the former quarters  was used for.

When Walter Temple heard that the razing of the Temple Block, including the bank building, was imminent, he contacted attorney Will D. Gould, who had the distinction of having opened his law practice in the same building when it opened in 1871 and was still there in 1925 when he was ordered to vacate.  With Gould’s assistance, Temple secured a few windows and some bricks from the old structure.  Evidently, these were used in the construction of the Tepee mentioned above when that structure was built in 1927.

Gould also procured for Temple the vault that still remained in the former Temple and Workman bank quarters and it was brought out to La Casa Nueva and installed in the basement as a very elaborate set of doors for that walk-in closet.

Fast forward fifty years to the late 1970s when the City of Industry acquired La Casa Nueva and began the restoration of the structure.  The vault had been painted white at some point over the years and it was decided to remove that layer to see what was beneath.  When it was discovered that there was a very detailed series of painted elements, Dorothy Nersesian, a restoration artist was brought out by the site’s restoration architect, Raymond Girvigian.  Carefully, the white paint was removed and the original elements were restored, as shown the accompanying photos.

Still around today, Diebold was the manufacturer of this vault, but dating it has been elusive so far.

A beautiful country landscape scene of a little cabin next to a roaring river rushing through tall dark mountains is the centerpiece.  Above it is the name of the manufacturer Diebold Safe & Lock Company of Canton, Ohio [home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame for you sports fans out there.]  At the bottom is the name of Thomas B. Clark identified as “Dealer, Los Angeles.”

Ornamented in a Neoclassical style with columns, pediment and an entablature as if from a Greek temple, the vault unfortunately had to have its pediment unceremoniously cut off to fit in the space.  But, at least the vault door, casing and inner doors were saved.

Trying to find a date for the vault proved challenging.  Maybe twenty or so years ago, I was at a San Gabriel bank ATM and noticed the man working on the machine was employed by Diebold, the manufacturer of the vault.  I asked him if it was possible to date an old bank vault made by the firm if I provided a serial number from some part of it–namely the handle, which had one stamped clearly on it.  He told me to call him with the number, but when I did and he looked into it, it was discovered that a fire destroyed all of Diebold’s records before the early 1900s.

Thomas B. Clark was an auctioneer and safe dealer for decades in Los Angeles.

So, the next idea was to look at Thomas B. Clark, listed as the dealer on lettering below the bucolic country scene.  It was learned that he was in Los Angeles as early as the later 1870s, but the initial research was done just about the time the Internet was launching, so the search didn’t get very far.

Since then, however, with all of the digital tools available to us, it has been learned that Clark was the son-in-law and partner of a well-known LA auctioneer named William Northcraft and that, by 1900, he was listing himself in the census as an auctioneer and a dealer in safes, specifically those made by a company called Hall.

Then, the painted work on the outer door has the look of Art Nouveau, which was popular from about 1890 to roughly World War I.  Finally, about the time of the little Diebold research, a photo from the Seaver Center for Western History Research at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County was located that showed the inside of the Temple and Workman bank, including the massive vault.  It was clearly much different.

An attempt to date the vault by this serial number of the door handle revealed that Diebold’s company records before about 1900 were destroyed by fire.  

So, it is safe (!) to conclude that the combination (oops!) of evidence shown above is pretty convincing that the vault in the La Casa Nueva basement, while certainly old (perhaps around the 1890s or so), is not the original Temple and Workman vault.  Still, it is one of the more unique aspects of many to be found behind the scenes at the Homestead.

To see the vault and other interesting elements of this fantastic historic site, the “Behind the Scenes” tours are being offered tomorrow, July 17, at 1:00, 2:00, 3:00 and 4:00.  So, come down and join us!

Leave a Reply